By Brian Bingaman
@brianbingaman on Twitter
You could say Philadelphia’s 118,000-square-foot Museum of the American Revolution was actually 240-some years in the making.
Fourteen years in the works — going back to when the Valley Forge Historical Society transferred its collection to the museum’s founding nonprofit in 2003 — opening day for the $150 million Museum of the American Revolution was finally set for April 19.
“It’s a very special museum. There were times I wasn’t sure we were gonna make it, but we did,” said board member and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell during a preview open house event.
He credited, among others, chairman emeritus Gerry Lenfest for donating $60 million; the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program for committing $35 million; and the Oneida Indian Nation for giving $10 million in order to realize an institution full of revelations on a time period we think we know, but really don’t.
“The truth is the American people don’t know the half of it. The film on the Washington Tent is my favorite. You can’t be an American and watch that film and not be struck by how fragile the Revolution was,” Rendell said. “We didn’t fund the war properly, our troops were short on supplies. It’s an amazing story how a ragtag group of farmers and shopkeepers beat the greatest army and navy in the world at that time, aided by Hessian soldiers. How did they do it? They did it because they were fighting for an idea. Every one of those soldiers, every one of the leaders, every one of the Founding Fathers understood that if we lost, they would be hung.”
The museum points out just how close the Revolution came to being a lost cause. There’s a vignette that mentions a letter George Washington wrote to Congress in December of 1777 that without supplies, his army would inevitably starve, dissolve or disperse.
The traveling battle tent that the letter was composed in is one of the museum’s crown jewels, and has an incredible story.
Another thought-provoking, previously-overlooked piece of the narrative behind the USA becoming a sovereign independent nation was an alliance with the Oneida, who broke ranks with a majority of the ancient Native-American six-nation Iroquois Confederacy by choosing to fight with the Americans against the British. There’s a multimedia gallery, with a short film and six lifelike figures in 18th century apparel, dedicated to telling that story. Other not-often-told perspectives come from women such as Baroness Von Riedesel of Germany, who was at the Battle of Saratoga; free and enslaved people of African descent like William “Billy” Lee, who was owned by Washington then set free for his service during the war; the Quakers who espoused pacifism; and even those that remained loyal to the crown.
“To me, this is like our story going to Broadway,” said Oneida Nation member Ron Patterson, who attended the open house in Native regalia. Patterson grew up in a Seneca Nation community, where he said he was looked down on for being Oneida just because of his ancestors’ decision to support the white revolutionaries hundreds of years ago. The Seneca supported the British Empire’s cause in the war.
“I moved to Oneida, N.Y. and I realized how honored our people are,” he said.
In addition to immersive galleries, there are re-created historic environments like a front deck of a privateer ship; experiences such as the Battlefield Theater, where you can imagine the sensations of being on the Continental Army’s front lines facing a British assault; and digital interactives, including a touchscreen that tells the tales of enslaved African-Americans in Virginia in 1781 that followed different paths to seek freedom.
Among the several thousand historic artifacts are weapons, manuscripts, personal items, works of art like William B.T. Trego’s painting “The March to Valley Forge,” fragments of a statue of King George III in New York City that was pulled down by an angry mob, the first newspaper printing of the Declaration of Independence, and a full-scale replica of Boston’s Liberty Tree — where discussions and debates on rebellion first were made — that incorporates wood from the last standing liberty tree in Annapolis, Md.
Other opportunities to participate in the story include designing your own soldier uniform, a hands-on interactive that brings the workings of a war camp to life, assuming Washington’s role as President of the Constitutional Convention and sitting in a reproduction of the “Rising Sun” chair; and trying your hand at an early American stitching lesson through an interactive sampler station in a gallery on the role mothers played in educating children as citizens.
The museum also features permanent and temporary exhibit galleries, education spaces, a café, a special events space and a museum retail store.
“The Revolutionary War is over. The American Revolution has begun,” the narrator of the introductory film “Revolution” says.
With the victory won and liberty achieved to forge the first modern democracy, what kind of nation did the Revolution create? One of the last things you encounter is a surprising display of photographs of people who were alive during the American Revolution and survived into the age of photography. At the end of that wall, leading to the exit to the gallery are the words: “Meet the future of the American Revolution,” where you find your reflection in a mirror looking back at you (with the elderly faces of the Revolution generation looking over your shoulder).